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Pine Thoughts: Home, sweet group home

Earlier this week at the group home, we experienced a harrowing moment. One of our residents fell from bed, screaming he was hurt. Lying tense on the floor as we assessed his condition, his vocalization turned to a new refrain, “I’m afraid!”

We felt so bad for him. We know him well, and understand his history of traumatic falls. We consoled and comforted him until he calmed. The Cloquet Area Fire District paramedics were able to assess him, deem him unharmed, and help return him to bed.

Our resident shared a cathartic conversation with Jordan, one of the paramedics, who exhibited a sincere and caring bedside manner. Within a few minutes, the resident’s eyelids were heavy and he was off to sleep.

In the debriefing with my coworker, I summed it up thusly: “Group home life.”

I love group homes. I love how they give residents who are vulnerable and disabled a chance to live among a pseudofamily and within their community. I love eating family style with residents. I love keeping a tidy group home. I love reading novels to people who aren’t likely or able to ever read one themselves. I love being a source of comfort and aid to people who are not ashamed to receive support. I love rising to meet the moments of stress or emergency. I love the responsibility of administering medications and checking vital signs. I love transferring people from wheelchairs to recliners and their beds. I love holding the residents’ hands and scratching their backs and painting their fingernails and making their meals. I love waking them up and putting them to bed. I love when I find kinship with a coworker who feels the same way I do about working in group homes.

I love the deep sense of purpose in the work.

I love everything about the job, save for its trouble finding good personnel.

I’ve worked in group homes off and on throughout my adult life, cycling from a children’s facility in Austin, Minnesota, through group homes for people with mental health vulnerabilities and, now, working in Cloquet at Pine Ridge Homes, which serves residents with disabilities in multiple locations.

I remember one time in Austin being beaten on with a wire clothes hanger by a young girl, who stopped acting out the moment one of her peers told her I had a daughter of my own.

“I didn’t know that about you,” she said.

She probably shouldn’t have known that, as it’s important to manage good boundaries in group homes. But I was younger then, and still developing as an effective worker.

Pine Ridge Homes has offered me my favorite group home experience to date. It’s a nonprofit and a long-standing community institution which feels like it’s in business for all the right reasons.

Like so many other group home companies, Pine Ridge Homes is experiencing a difficult time finding responsible workers.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, group home companies seemed to enjoy their salad days, cycling through workers with long lines of others willing to take their place. They tended to hire younger, cheaper folks — a lot of college kids — who hadn’t matured and needed intensive training and managing. And the group homes were willing to put up with the turnover, because they rarely experienced a shortage of applicants.

That’s not the case any longer.

We’re usually down several staffers and being asked to fill shifts outside one’s schedule is commonplace. Applicants who schedule interviews sometimes never show up or train and never arrive for their first shift.

It’s a difficult time. It puts a lot of pressure on those of us who appreciate and do the work.

It’s forced the group homes to alter their schedules a lot. Historically, group homes offered long, 12-hour shifts for several days in a row followed by several days off. Now, they’re needing to be more flexible and piecemeal with their schedules. They’re taking what they can get from workers and it puts the worker in a good, leveraged position. That’s benefitted me and allowed me to carry my reporting job alongside my group home work.

The current climate makes it good for the retired person who might want to kick the tires on getting out of the house for decent pay. I know one fella who is 80 years old and pulls a couple of awake overnights each week. I can also attest that homemakers whose own children are long grown can make terrific group home employees.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this column, maybe group home life could be for you, too.

It’s health care work that puts a person in close proximity with nurses and others worthy of admiration. Like Jordan, the paramedic.

Group home work mimics the rhythms of everyday life. The tidy home setting makes for a really comfortable workplace. It’s unlike clocking in just about anywhere else. Supporting and caring for the residents fills one with a strong sense of purpose and is such a reward in itself. Over the past couple of years I’ve gotten to know one 73-year-old woman who just came off of hospice. For several months she displayed such grit and will to live. We all just adore her and work and root hard for her. She does not have the ability to speak, but she does crack a smile once in a while.

It’s always enough to put a smile on my own face.

If you’d like to feel that way, too, maybe look into a group home job. You won’t be disappointed.

Brady Slater is a reporter for the Pine Knot News who has spent his career reporting and editing at community newspapers in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, Austin, Minnesota, Pocatello, Idaho and Duluth.

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